Dubs need to take lead from Leinster
WHEN Leinster won their second Heineken Cup two weeks ago, I was struck by the buzz around Dublin following the success. I was thinking afterwards that, for the first time in living memory, the Dublin Gaelic football team might not be the biggest deal in town any longer. Could this really be true?
No doubt, GAA officials in Dublin are well aware of the growing competition for hearts and minds. And, if anything, it adds greater significance to the county's lengthening bid to land the big prize in football.
The hurlers might have added to the excitement in the capital this year after making genuine progress but across the Liffey the rugger boys are also wearing blue, they've borrowed Hill 16's anthem and, to be honest, they've also stolen their thunder.
Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen would be well aware that their careers have spanned a similar period to players like Alan Brogan, Bryan Cullen, Barry Cahill and Stephen Cluxton. But, unlike their Gaelic football counterparts, Leinster have nailed the big prize and sealed a place in the rugby history books for themselves.
And to do that they had to see off the reputation for being the bridesmaid in Irish rugby, lads from around the Pale lacking the so-called provincial passion. Not too dissimilar to the kind of country wisdom you hear tossed around about Dublin... it doesn't matter enough to them etc.
As well as the professionalism Leinster brought to their set-up, they also developed leaders on the field who delivered when it really mattered. Dublin's experienced players like Bernard and Alan Brogan, Cullen and Cahill are going to have to provide real leadership under pressure this summer if Dublin are to break the cycle.
In the league final against Cork, the game was crying out for a leader in the closing 10 minutes, even someone who could have summoned Cluxton from his goal to kick a free with his left.
We know that it's a high-risk strategy Dublin are employing where they potentially finish a high-intensity game with some of their best players spent on the bench. Leaders take decisions out of the manager's hands and they're not afraid to make them at vital times.
However, they also need to have enough energy to be able to function under the most intense pressure and this is where the use and make-up of the bench is crucial. It is not enough just to throw your leg at a shot late in a game and pray that it goes over. The best example I can remember of leadership under pressure was Peter Canavan taking the ball from Owen Mulligan to convert a late free in the '05 All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh.
So, while everyone cautions against it, Dublin's All-Ireland credentials will be teased out once again from the very outset this year, starting with Laois on Sunday.
No matter how hard they try, it will be impossible not to be measuring players with September in mind, which of course plays into the opposition's hands -- look no further than this point last year when they were lucky to get away from Wexford after extra-time. And last weekend's impressive victory for Armagh is another example of a side properly focused on the task in hand.
Still, even with one eye on the longer road ahead, Dublin have shown over the past 12 months that they are prepared to work tirelessly and that honesty should reduce the potential for a shock on Sunday.
I accept that Laois are not as bad as the post-match analysis after the Longford game suggests and promotion to Division 1 in Justin McNulty's first year is already progress.
They look a stronger outfit and you would expect that MJ Tierney, Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley plying their trade with clubs in Dublin will count for something in this contest. They also have support on the bench, where Padraig Clancy and Donie Kingston can come in and match Dublin's changes.
Laois, no doubt, will employ extra men to support their full-back line, given that McNulty was one of the pioneers of the tactic, but too much negativity could really backfire on them. They have plenty of football in them but they won't 'out-work' Dublin in the chasing game.
The selection of James McCarthy at wing-back has raised a few eyebrows, given he wasn't first-choice during the league, and with Dublin's midfield back-up still on the mend Cahill's return to that position is understandable after a number of impressive displays. There will obviously be a lot of interest in the Dublin bench on Sunday, particularly given the decision not to start Eoghan O'Gara and Mossie Quinn.
Dublin have progressed as a team since their Leinster campaign went pear-shaped last year but if they are to reclaim the title they will need to get into their stride early this time around. Still, hard to see beyond a comfortable win for Pat Gilroy's men.